Requests to expand services and reduce travel times were high on the list of residents' suggests for improving the Regional Transportation Agency of Central Maryland's public transit system, according to a survey of residents and riders who use the system.
The survey, compiled by KFG Group, a Bethesda-based firm, is part of a five-year study that will include suggestions to overhaul the aging regional transit system, which serves Howard County, northern Prince George's County, Anne Arundel County and the city of Laurel.
The study, known in planning jargon as a transit development plan, aims to bring the aging public transit system up to speed with demographic changes, population growth and areas that have been under-served for years. The RTA system is the fifth largest transit program in the state and provides 1.7 million trips annually.
KFH's analysis of public input from two surveys, community meetings and stakeholder interviews established the importance of the service for residents, a majority of whom depend on bus services to get to work.
A resounding portion of services, which include buses that run on fixed routes and curb-to-curb para-transit services, met the needs of individuals with reported incomes of less than $40,000, according to the survey.
"[This service represents] an opportunity for their own livelihood and also for the county's employment. It's essentially getting people to their jobs. It's a very important service," said Clive Graham, head of the county's transportation office.
In a survey of more than 1,200 people who used fixed-route buses, the firm found most riders heavily depend on the transit system for transportation to work. A majority of riders — 85 percent — do not own a car even though a little more than half have a driver's license. About half of the riders were employed full-time and 44 percent have an annual household income of under $20,000.
"It seems like we have a core ridership that we can provide better services for and have a system that really meets a lot of needs," Graham said.
Just under 70 percent of paratransit riders used buses to meet their medical needs and more than 84 percent paid about $2.50 for one-way trips. Riders reported higher levels of satisfaction with services than fixed-route riders.
About 70 percent of all riders indicated current services met their needs, but suggested expanding services to under-served areas like Fulton, Annapolis and Clarksville. Other riders expressed concerns about the system's lack of reliability, frequently late buses and the poor condition of buses.
The system built upon the outdated skeleton of ColumBus, a fleet of minibuses operated by Columbia Association years ago. In some cases, vehicle supplies are so short that officials swap out its newer para-transit buses for fixed-route buses that break down or are in low supply.
In Howard, the county's aging fleet is set to receive temporary relief this year. Local lawmakers earlier this year approved the $2.5 million purchase of seven new buses through a cooperative purchasing agreement.
The firm also garnered input from 216 residents in a more informal-community wide survey, around 71 percent of which used forms of public transit like Amtrak services and Uber or Lyft. Those residents, largely concentrated in Columbia and Ellicott City, also sought more frequent service and improved service availability. Only 11 percent of survey respondents said they did not own a car.
In multiple community meetings throughout the jurisdictions, residents suggested adjusting bus schedules and adding additional route connections, especially to Baltimore and Washington and connections to MARC stations. Residents complained head-ways were too long, connections were not streamlined and routes took too long, according to the survey.
Other residents noted concerns about inefficient routes, the lack of timeliness of buses and existing bus stops that don't have accessible pathways, benches, shelters or crosswalk for pedestrians.
Despite broad differences between riders and other community members, both surveys indicated a need for expanded service and reliability, according to the survey.
The survey also found major demographic differences between riders of para-transit services and riders of fixed-route buses. Almost 72 percent of fixed-route riders identified as African American while almost half of paratransit riders identified as Caucasian.
Currently, the county is working with stakeholders to craft recommendations in the overall plan, which was last completed in 2009 and stalled after limited state funding. KFG estimates the plan will be ready by July.
The final product will include a road map to implement upgrades to services and organizations involved in the system over the next five years. Planners and county officials will open up the plan to a second round of public input as the county formalizes recommendations, which could meet requests to expand services to under-served areas like Maple Lawn in Fulton and River Hill in Columbia.
"We want, at the end, to be able to say that we made recommendations out of what people told us [they are] looking for," Graham said. "We have to make sure it's realistic and we can do this. The next question is what it's going to cost."
The Howard County Council will vote on the plan once it is completed.